After Assad, What Are the Options for the International Community?

A member of the Syrian Army in Homs, where troops were fighting the Islamic State after its takeover of nearby Palmyra. Homs, Syria, May 31, 2015. (Paris Match via Getty Images)

With the European refugee crisis and reports of Russia’s military support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad continuing to occupy governments and populations across the world, the impetus to find a solution to the Syrian conflict has grown. While more nations are set to join a United States-led military campaign against Daesh (also known as Islamic State) in Syria, strategies to tackle the Assad government have eluded the international community. That may be changing, however, with recent events pointing to a weakening of the regime’s position and encouraging some observers to envision scenarios for a possible future beyond it.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has, for example, proposed Assad lead a transitional government before relinquishing control of the country. Although this was promptly rejected by Syria’s information minister, it exhibits a newfound commitment of Western powers to actively engage with the regime in order to quell the crisis.

Assad has until now proven effective at reinforcing the perception of his government as the only survival option for the Syrian people. His firm decision to keep essential state agencies running throughout the crisis has effectively made him the sole provider of goods and services. This semblance of stability has allowed him to justify his actions as a way to preserve the Syrian state. But a July 26 public address seemed to tell another story. The hour-long address, first of its kind since he was sworn in for a third term in July 2014, was a subtle mea culpa, acknowledging the regime’s territorial and manpower losses, but ultimately aimed at reassuring his loyal followers, specifically his Alawite kinsmen, that these would not crack the House of Assad.

Through his speech, Assad attempted to justify his recent ceding of territory, maintaining that his army was “fighting for victory, not for martyrdom.” Yet with an army stretched thin across multiple fronts, victory seems an impossible feat. The once 300,000-strong army has lost approximately half its manpower due to the combination of defection and rising death tolls. Efforts at increasing its manpower by signing a recent decree granting amnesty to Syrians who have dodged drafting or defected are not likely to make a great deal of change. According to Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, it would be impossible for the Syrian government to replace the manpower it has lost, making it the biggest challenge the regime is facing at this stage of the conflict.

In a nation divided, Assad represents the top rung of the security ladder for many, especially the Alawite minority. Should he fall from power, he would not be able to provide even basic security for the closest people around him—effectively putting them all at the mercy of rebel groups and Daesh. As his stronghold on the nation falters, some of his own soldiers have chosen to switch sides by joining the Jaish al-Fateh coalition, a military operations room composed of numerous jihadist factions, most prominently the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra front.

This gradual exodus has encouraged several jihadist groups to cooperate in order to provide an alternative government structure, especially in the liberated territories where the state has failed to keep services running. In the last four months, ideological differences have seemingly been put aside in favor of strategic rebel coalitions to ensure the opposition’s victory over the Assad regime. Although these convenient coalitions have proven to be an effective front against the regime, it remains a fragile balance. In the case of a victory, we can expect to see the gradual fragmentation of these groups, as seen over the years with al-Qaeda. Given their compositions—a mix between moderate rebels and extreme jihadists—their ideologies are likely to clash in the long run, possibly spurring a new wave of fighting as they attempt to establish a power hierarchy in a post-Assad Syria.

Although the rise of rebel coalitions has been effective in combating and weakening government monopoly so far, Daesh still remains the biggest threat to the regime, and more broadly, one of the biggest threats to the international community. The organization has successfully recruited approximately 21,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria over the course of the conflict. It has demonstrated its desire to control the region through a campaign of violence and terror aimed at everyone in its way—Syrians of all religions and foreign aid workers alike. Its threat to the multilateral order is further intensified by Daesh’s ability to inspire individuals to carry out attacks on foreign soil, infiltrate the mind of the youth through a savvy social media presence and attract specialists to help pave the way to establishment of its caliphate.

As both the jihadist coalitions and Daesh continue to make territorial advances, the Assad regime has grown desperate and weak, grasping at straws to impose its legitimacy, and violating international humanitarian law in the process. Atrocities such as the August 16 government airstrikes on the rebel-controlled suburb of Douma, 10 miles northeast of Damascus, that resulted in over 90 deaths and hundreds of injuries, has put pressure on the United Nations Humanitarian Chief, Stephen O’Brien, to speak up.

On July 29, the UN mediator in Syria’s conflict, Staffan de Mistura, proposed the creation of working groups to tackle Syria’s current division and develop a roadmap to peace. This proposal came after months of discussion on how best to implement the Geneva Communique, a document adopted by the UN in 2012 calling for a transitional government in Syria, proved futile. It was reiterated following the attack in Douma and endorsed by the Security Council, a historic occurrence, as both the United States and Russia agreed on a Syrian-led political process.

De Mistura’s proposal to the Security Council highlighted four key issues that the working groups would address: Safety and protection for all; political and constitutional issues; military and security issues; public institutions; and reconstruction and development. Missing from his briefing were steps to take should alternative scenarios occur, such as a coalition-led victory over the Assad region, or a complete take-over by Daesh. Although de Mistura and his team had consulted with Syrian and international actors in the creation of these working groups, key regional players were left out of the discussion. This begs the question: is it conceivable that the international community, specifically the UN, will have to engage with violent non-state military actors in their quest to save Syria?

Sophia Durand is an intern in the Middle East & North Africa office of the International Peace Institute.